Hold the front page! Spitting Image is back! Well, sort of. A new six-part series, from (some of) the team behind Fluck and Law’s puppetry satire show, will be broadcast on ITV this spring. Called Newzoids, it promises to provide a ‘biting look at the world of politics and celebrity’. Cue ecstatic reports in all the papers about how hilarious the original was, and how much we’ve all missed it. There’s only one problem with this analysis. Whisper it on Wardour Street, but Spitting Image wasn’t actually all that funny.
Yes, the voices were pin-sharp (shout-outs for Rory Bremner, Steve Coogan, Hugh Dennis, Harry Enfield, Alistair McGowan and a host of others) but, despite the input of writers like Ian Hislop and Richard Curtis, the breathless scripts reflected the frantic deadlines that the show’s topicality required. Yes, the puppets were works of art (take a bow, Peter Fluck and Roger Law, and all the puppet-makers who served under them) but for much of its 12-year run Spitting Image was often far funnier with the sound turned down.
Contrary to popular opinion, Spitting Image wasn’t remotely subversive. Depicting Margaret Thatcher as a bossy man surrounded by spineless Tory wets merely bolstered her carefully cultivated public image. Tony Benn? Mad. Michael Foot? A doddery old man in a donkey jacket. This wasn’t fearless satire. It was more like the front page of the Sun.
The songs were especially cringeworthy. ‘I’ve Never Met A Nice South African’ achieved the almost impossible feat of out-stereotyping the white architects of apartheid. Even at the time, the slobbering Roy Hattersley puppet was embarrassing. Either Hattersley didn’t have a speech impediment (in which case the joke made no sense) or he did (in which case it was about as witty as impersonating Stephen Hawking). Roger Law readily admitted that the show didn’t change a thing. Its only killer blow was depicting David Steel as David Owen’s silly sidekick. Yet even this sight gag merely reinforced the status quo.
So will the new show be any better? I doubt it, and here’s why. Satirising politicians has always worked in print, all the way back to Gillray, but it simply doesn’t work on television. For a politician, appearing on the one-eyed god, in any guise, is a form of self-aggrandisement. Viewers don’t remember what you did or what you said, simply that you were on telly. For any aspiring politician, being sent up on Spitting Image was a sign that you’d arrived. Nigel Farage should be delighted to have his very own Newzoids puppet. The only attack he ought to fear is if they dared to leave him out. ‘Don’t vote, it only encourages them,’ ran an old anarchist proverb, a popular button badge and graffiti tag during the Thatcherite heyday of Spitting Image. Much the same could be said of putting political satire on TV.
For all its Punch and Judy slapstick, there was something uncannily prophetic about Spitting Image. Unwittingly, it anticipated the growing power of celebrity, the growing importance of style over substance and the consequent merging of politics and showbiz. Like Spitting Image, Newzoids promises to lampoon celebs and politicians. In the 1980s and 1990s, those were still two separate entities. Now, they’re much the same. Caricature has become reality. When we tune in to watch Boris Johnson and Russell Brand on Newzoids, their new puppets will already feel far more familiar than the real thing.